The “culture war” that we hear so much about is, to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase, a “conflict of visions.” Visions, Sowell explains, go deeper than mere policy – in fact they are the font of where we stand on the issues – and they are founded on some of the most basic and fundamental beliefs the individual holds about the nature of man and, in turn, the role and purpose of government, family, religion and all other influential forces that society has evolved. Sowell called the conflicting visions the “Constrained” and the “Unconstrained” and offered Jean Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith as primary examples of the visions in conflict. More contemporary examples are John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen, the former holding the “unconstrained” vision (which I call here the Neo-Liberal view), the latter the “constrained,” or, in my term, Conservative take. Just to be clear, yes, I’m saying that, while Springsteen the multimillionaire, rock star with the mansion in Beverly Hills may be a Liberal, Bruce Springsteen the poet is one-hundred percent Republican.
Sowell recognizes that, at its most basic level, this conflict of visions revolves around what one believes to be man’s innate nature. Is it, as the Neo-Liberal believes, that man is born good and then corrupted by the institutions of society or, do the Conservatives have it right and man is born with a dual and conflicting nature — capable of good and evil and everything in between — requiring cultural forces to help him tamp down the darker side and cultivate the good within?
Lennon’s iconic anthem “Imagine” could not be a better representation of the Neo-Liberal vision. Since the Neo-Liberal believe that man is born good, the way to create a good society – in fact, a utopia – is to remove all forces that hinder him from doing what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. A heaven on earth is to be found merely by following the early Neo-Liberal mantra, “If it feels good, do it,” for, being innately good, ones feelings – and not moral codes or civic responsibilities, loyalties to others or such pedestrian concerns as the need to make a living – will see the Neo-Liberal do what is good.
Springsteen, on the other hand, holds the diametrically opposed – Conservative – vision of man’s nature:
“Two faces have I. One that laughs, one that cries. One says ‘hello,’ one says ‘goodbye.’ One says things I don’t understand. Makes me feel like half a man.”
Since Springsteen recognizes that his feelings are conflicted, far from seeking the destruction of the civilizing forces, these are the things he specifically turns to for guidance:
“At night I get down on my knees and pray, I want to make that other man go away…”
For this reason, where the Neo-Liberal Lennon espouses the end of all religions, few contemporary artists so fully infuse their work with faith and works. Fairly early in Springsteen’s career, in the song “Badlands,” the Conservative poet takes a moment to contemplate what will bring him happiness in life. He then runs through the usual possibilities, from losing oneself in his work to the accruing of fabulous riches, only to decide in the end that is “Faith that can save me.” Unlike the Neo-Liberal Lennon who indiscriminately rejects all religions without regard to what they practice or preach, then, Springsteen is undeniably a Catholic – his characters never happier and more fulfilled than when they are practicing the Judeo-Christian heritage and their Christian faith and never more pathetic than when they are without it. In fact, Springsteen has often been compared to a preacher and called a “liturgist,” the release of his album, Tunnel of Love described by Father Andrew Greeley, writing in America – The National Catholic Weekly, as “Perhaps a more important Catholic event in America than the visit of Pope John Paul II!”
Neither does Springsteen share with the Neo-Liberal the belief that national identity is a force for evil. Springsteen sees the constraints of the Constitution as good, right and essential:
“See that flag flying over the courthouse? It says certain things are set in stone. Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.”
The combination of Catholic imagery and American iconography stand in stark contrast to the Neo-Liberal Lennon whose Utopian dreams require the dismantling of these things – of all codes and creeds beyond doing what feels good at any moment – the things Sowell calls “constraints.”
Since the Neo-Liberal believes that man is born perfect, the notion of self-improvement is seen by him as an oxymoron. After all, what can improve upon perfection? In the Neo-Liberal world, then, the individual is never wrong and society is to blame for all outcomes short of utopia. For this reason, Lennon’s song – like the policies of the Neo-Liberals in government — offers no suggestions as to how the individual might better himself and, in turn, better the outcome for himself and the world around him. Imagine offers no criticism of the individual, taking only society – from top to bottom – to task. If only the whole world would change, then, utopia will be achieved both in song and in the world.
Springsteen shares both the Conservatives recognition that we are living in the real world, and the belief that bettering ourselves is the very purpose of life. Neither Springsteen nor others who share the Conservative point-of-view, denies the vicissitudes of real life nor pretend that they are always fair and just, just that they are and, more importantly, that individual choices can make all the difference. For this reason, while Lennon’s opus requires nothing of the individual (except a flight of fancy in the “imagination”), Springsteen’s body-of-work reads like a “How to” on personal behavior. In fact, Springsteen repeatedly rails against believing in the fantastic for the lethargy and wasted time such flights of the imagination ensure. It’s not that Springsteen – and all other Conservatives — don’t have dreams. It’s that they are dreams to be acted upon in the real world:
“I was living in the world of childish dreams. Someday those childish dreams must end. To become a man and learn to dream again…”
For this reason, Springsteen implores “Mary” to “Trade in these wings on some wheels.” After all, wings may fly you quickly and safely over all of the bumps and potholes on the road…but they don’t exist! Wheels – cars – on the other hand, do exist and are the only way to achieve the dream of finding something of value somewhere further down the road.
Time and again Springsteen makes clear to his love that he’s no “Hero,” does not possess the God-like ability to bestow “redemption” and that he’s not “Prince Charming” whose single kiss will bring about a Utopian existence. It is the individual who must take action and, in doing so, better himself, his lot in life and society as a whole. In “If I Should Fall Behind,” Springsteen addresses the vicissitudes of life…
“Everyone dreams of, a love lasting and true. But you and I both know what this world can do…”
…and then offers concrete actions to be taken to overcome the obstacles of the real world and to make that dream come true:
“…So let’s make our steps clear, so the other may see. And I’ll wait for you, and if I should fall behind, wait for me.”
This concrete step is impossible to the Neo-Liberal for, as Sowell recognizes, loyalty -and all other bonds that are “intertemporal” such as patriotism, marital fidelity, constitutions, etc. – are “constraints” upon doing what one feels at any given moment. Neo-Liberalism is, to use Lee Harris’ phrase, a “Carpe diem” philosophy, the hallmark of which, Harris rightly recognizes, is “A complete lack of interest in (one’s) own historical and cultural foundation, and…relative indifference to the future.” Loyalty requires one to make a choice today based on something done in the past. Patriotism requires one to do what doesn’t feel good for the benefit of something bigger and more important. To those who share Lennon’s belief that utopia is a place where “All the people are living for today,” waiting for someone who has fallen behind is a intolerable and dying for something bigger than themselves an unfathomable choice.
Springsteen does not “live for today,” but rather shares the Conservatives’ belief that our lives have greater meaning and that goodness and happiness is to be found in the transcendent. Unlike the Neo-Liberal, he does not see himself as the be-all and the end-all of everything, his every emotion, de facto, good. Instead Springsteen recognizes himself to be part of the on-going pageant of humanity, with debts owed to and lessons to be learned from those who came before us, and promises – and the joy to be found in the keeping of those promises –made to those who come next. Again, the transcendent is a concept that is wholly unknown to the Neo-Liberal who, living for today, can value nothing more other than self and moment.
Thus, in “Walk Like A Man,” a song about the death of his father, Springsteen does what he can on behalf of his father – he takes up the mantle of the adult and takes his place as an adult. In “Living Proof,” a song about the birth of his own son, Springsteen had previously seen the world – as so many Neo-Liberals do – as a place that’s “So dark and dirty, so fouled and confused” and finds proof of God’s mercy in the gift that Barack Obama had only recently called a “punishment” – the birth of a baby.
One last constraint the Neo-Liberal finds intolerable must not go unmentioned and that is the concept of merit. In the Neo-Liberal world, merit must be fully divorced from reward as becoming expert – or merely proficient – requires hours, days, months or even years of practicing for a pay-off that cannot possibly come soon enough for those who are “Living for today.” As Sowell recognizes, costs – including effort – are constraints upon the ability to act as one feels. The purpose of Neo-Liberal policy, then, isn’t to encourage as many people as possible to become expert, but to deny the expert addition rewards for their efforts. In the world of politics this is known as the “Nanny State,” while in Lennon’s utopia the hardworking and the slothful, the expert and the incompetent, the chaste and the promiscuous simple “share all the world” equally.
Springsteen whole-heartedly believes in the concept of merit — and is more than willing to “pay the price” for the things he wants. In “Thunder Road” he makes clear that he not only “Got this guitar,” but that he put in the years needed to nothing less than “Learn how to make it talk.” In “Local Hero,” Springsteen may acknowledge the luck involved in attaining success:
“…And if you turn the right cards up, they’ll make you ‘Boss,’ the devil pays off…”
But also makes clear that his luck is the residue not only of design but of effort:
“I learned my job, I learned it well. Fit myself with religion and a story to tell.”
It is hard to believe that Springsteen believes that Bill Horton, who worked so hard to make himself a better man, and who built his wife a home with his own hands, should be forced to share that home with vagrants and bums and the hippy-dippy weatherman. Springsteen is – like most Conservatives (and unlike most Liberals) extremely charitable. He wishes to take others with him on his road to success, but, as he says to Mary in “Thunder Road,” “the door’s open but the ride it ain’t free.”
In the end, Neo-Liberalism is about permanently infantilizing the populace. The “thinking” is that, since children are born good, then the way to have a society of good adults is to keep the population eternally infantile.
Springsteen, however, does not dream of – to borrow a phrase from another iconic musical group of the Neo-Liberal Era, The Beach Boys – Endless Summer of non-stop play. Nor does he seek, in John Cougar Mellencamp’s words, to “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can.” Instead Springsteen relishes the life of the adult with all its rules and constraints, duties and obligations – for they are both the challenges and the significance of life. In fact, Springsteen repeatedly rails against those who seek “The carnival life forever.” In “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” Springsteen enumerates the instant pleasures that are so appealing to the permanent children of the boardwalk from pinball machines to a parade of casual sex partners and declares:
“And me? Well I just got tired of hanging in them dusty arcades, banging them pleasure machines.”
Soon Springsteen takes off down the “Thunder Road,” of life not with the child’s wings, but with the man’s wheels, not seeking the instant pleasure of sex, but looking for love – a love that comes with the condition that he merit it – his dreams to be worked for and ultimately realized, not merely imagined. Yes, Bruce Springsteen the multimillionaire, rock star, ensconced in his palatial mansion high in the hills of Beverly may now consider himself a Neo-Liberal (“A life of leisure and a pirates treasure” can do that to a man) but Bruce Springsteen the poet — the philosopher – is the epitome of the Conservative vision.